As we enter the crucial, squeaky-bum period of the season, there are still four teams who are realistically in with a shot at the Premier League title. The league is at its most competitive in years, the standard is higher, and momentum is changing hands almost weekly. The sub-plots are also compelling as ever, with big-spending, volatile Man City attempting to win their first Premier League trophy in spite of well-publicised in-fighting and individual player revolts. Arsenal are looking for their first championship since the 2003/04 Invincibles, while Man United have only recently blown their chance of matching that remarkable unbeaten record. Chelsea, the holders, are also very much still in contention, despite a dramatic mid-season slump.
Arsenal: Though always somewhat vulnerable defensively, the Gunners have kept in contention through a mixture of attacking prowess and newly-found belief. This confidence has been clear in victories against Everton, Man City and Chelsea. Were it not for Arsenal’s inconsistency at home, which has seen them lose to West Brom, Newcastle, and most dramatically to Tottenham in a 3-2 turnaround, Wenger’s red and white army would be in a much stronger position. The creative talents of Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie, the latter of whom now seems to be back to his world-class best, will be vital to the Gunners’ pursuit of the title. Alex Song is also a key figure, and at his best can form a near-unbreakable wall in front of his defence. At the back, the inexperienced trio of Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny will have to handle the enormous pressure they’ll be under as the season nears its conclusion, as their recent falling apart against Newcastle has shown. However, Arsenal’s squad and confidence is at its strongest for years, and if they are still in contention when Thomas Vermaelen returns from injury, expect Wenger’s charges to push their rivals all the way.
Chelsea: The Blues started the season at breakneck speed, hitting West Brom and Wigan for six, and were 5 points clear of their rivals by mid-October. However, following the sacking of Ray Wilkins, Chelsea suffered a rapid decline in form which saw them win only 1 out of 9 games, gaining just 7 points out of a possible 27 in the process. The extended absences of Alex, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien certainly contributed to this terrible run, exposing Chelsea’s aging and limited squad. Even with a recent upturn in form, Ancelloti’s side find themselves 10 points off top spot, with a squad lacking the depth of quality needed to make a sustained assault on the summit. Nor is the run-in kind to the Blues, with tricky away matches at Stoke, Sunderland and Everton accompanied by do-or-die fixtures against Tottenham, Man Utd, and Man City. Chelsea can’t be counted out of the race though. Both the players and their manager know what it takes to win a title, and they possess stars such as Didier Drogba and their new £50 million man, Fernando Torres, who have the ability to win any game almost by themselves.
Man City: For the first time since the early 80’s, the blue half of Manchester have a realistic chance of claiming the pinnacle of English football as their own, but the rapid rise of the so-called “noisy neighbours” has not come cheap, or without a fair amount of controversy. Nevertheless, the approximate £385 million which City’s current owners have so far spent on the squad seems to be having the desired effect, with Roberto Mancini moulding a cohesive, solid team out of his squad of superstars. City’s often criticised defence has conceded just 22 goals so far this season, and this has been mainly down to the effective shielding of Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong and Yaya Toure. However, Mancini’s team still relies too heavily on the talismanic Carlos Tevez, and may suffer from Adam Johnson’s enforced long-term absence. Seeking to cure his team’s profligacy in front of goal, Mancini has brought in Bosnian marksman Edin Dzeko. The Bosnian Diamond hit 76 goals in 105 appearances for VfL Wolfsburg, and if he carries this form over to the Premier League, City will have their best opportunity in years of toppling their Manchester rivals.
Man United: Many pundits at the start of the season expected United to once again pay for their inability to replace Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, but they counted without the impact of an in-form Dimitar Berbatov. The Bulgarian’s rich scoring streak, coupled with the impressive form of Nani, has compensated for Wayne Rooney’s struggle to find form, with the England international hitting the back of the net only three times from open play all season. Rio Ferdinand and particularly Nemanja Vidic have also played excellently, but it is United’s collective mental strength which has been vital in comebacks from two goals down against Aston Villa and Blackpool. However, with only three away wins all season, Man Utd don’t look the complete package just yet. The Red Devils only recently had their unbeaten run ended by lowly Wolves, but crucial games against Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City will show whether United are capable of winning a 12th Premier League title, and overhauling Liverpool’s joint record of 18 league championships.
Verdict: Top of the table despite having their unbeaten record only recently ended, Man United have it in their hands to yet again claim the trophy which more often than not ends the season at Old Trafford. However, this is not Ferguson’s best team, and the chasing pack contains teams that are all capable of going on a winning run which, in this current climate of inconsistency, would be enough to win the title.